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Girmay intent on making history in Giro d’Italia

Biniam Girmay shows the latest sponsor for Intermarché, Vini Zabú, at Giro team presentation
Biniam Girmay shows the latest sponsor for Intermarché, Vini Zabú, at Giro team presentation (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Superstar status in cycling is not always easy to assess. But perhaps one way of doing it emerged on Thursday in Budapest, when Loic Vliegen, a teammate of  Biniam Girmay and his hotel roommate for the upcoming Giro d’Italia, was asked by media in a press conference what Netflix series the two will likely be watching in the evenings for the next three weeks. And it was a genuine question.

Girmay’s rapid rise to stardom was evident in many other ways in the half-hour Giro press conference, as he fielded the vast majority of the media enquiries - Netflix preferences apart - about what it meant to be racing his first Grand Tour at 22.

Just a few months on from his breakthrough victory in Gent-Wevelgem and less than a year after his World Championships podium finish in the U23 road race, the Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux rider said he was aware that in Italy and Hungary he could be taking another major step this May, both for himself, his country and the sport.

“It’s the dream of all cyclists to win in a Grand Tour,” he emphasised, “specially the Tour and Giro, the biggest races. A Black rider has never won a stage of a Grand Tour. So it’s a big ride.”

He said his goals in the Giro d’Italia were to hunt for that stage victory and then perhaps go for the points jersey. With his first chance of a win coming tomorrow in the final five-kilometre ascent to Visegrad.

“We did a recon this morning and it’s not so steep, but not so easy,” said Girmay, who has already proved his ability to get over the shorter climbs with the best in races like Gent-Wevelgem and Sanremo this year. “For some sprinters it can be good. Also for me.”

But he also commented that racing such a long distance in a Grand Tour would also be a voyage in the dark and as such he did not know what his limits would be. 

“I’ve just done five or six stages at most, so this is my first big stage race. I need more experience.”

Back home for a break in Eritrea after his Gent-Wevelgem win, Girmay said he had little time there to celebrate before getting back into training and getting “focussed” for the Giro d’Italia. He did one race, the Eschborn-Frankfurt last Sunday, where he received a rapturous welcome from local Eritrean fans, before heading to Italy.

“For me it’s not the first time I have had so many fans around me, there were a lot of people even at World Championships,” Girmay said. “The fans are bit crazy about cycling, and I’m super happy to see them.”

His teammates are impressed, in any case, by how calm Girmay has managed to stay during his meteoric rise to fame. 

“He’s never nervous, he doesn’t put pressure on himself,” Vloigen said, while explaining one of his responsibilities as a more experienced roommate was to show Girmay, six years his junior, the ropes and give him advice as a rider. 

But there was no time, Vloigen said, to be watching Netflix. To which Girmay responded with a grin, “hey, maybe we can do a movie together.”

Another teammate with responsibilities for Girmay in his third year as a pro has been Hungary’s Barnabás Peák. Girmay’s lead-out man was also present at the Budapest press conference, and also fielded questions about the Eritrean.

“He’s humble, he’s cheerful and he’s appreciative, and he’s very trusting of following my wheel, particularly in the GP Frankfurt where I was the lead-out man for him and [Alexander] Kristoff. We did a good job,” Peák said.

But it is not just on the flat where Girmay will be testing his limits this May in Italy. It also represents a crucial test of his ability to get through the mountains.

“We still need to discover that, and to see what happens on the day by day,” says Intermarché director Valerio Piva. “I don’t think it will be a problem. Hopefully he’ll make it through to the end.”

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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The IndependentThe GuardianProCycling, The Express and Reuters.